This term usually includes Chinese and Japanese gardens, although, strictly speaking, the Persian ones that have had so much influence on subsequent Moorish architecture should also be included. The first certain description of the Chinese gardens we find in 1685, in a book by Sir William Tempie who, having been ambassador to Holland, had undoubtedly acquired his knowledge through the descriptions of the merchants of the Netherlands. In the following century we find much more precise information until, in 1772, “A Dissertation on Oriental Gardening”, written by Sir William Chambers, was published: this, although not a written treatise by direct experience, had great fame and contributed not a little, as well as creating the western landscape gardens, also to make known, at least for a certain period of time, those buildings and ornaments that go under the general name of “chinoiserie”.
To our modern eyes that see things in perspective, the descriptions of Chambers on Chinese gardens, probably exaggerated by the desire to affirm their theories on the landscape, seem strangely similar to a gallery of paintings by Ruysdael or Salvator Rosa, separate buildings. It is perfectly true that the Chinese honors nature and they tended to keep the salient aspects intact by inserting them into the general context, but the examples we obtain from ancient engravings or which, transformed, have come down to us, speak above all of a set of rules rituals and metaphysics that wild nature can not possess.
However, the ancient Chinese gardens, as well as influencing Western taste, arrived in Japan together with Buddhism, writing, and all the other things that, once introduced, took on a particular physiognomy; today, speaking of oriental gardens, one intends above all to speak of the Japanese ones, which however, in return, influenced their Chinese ancestors through the course of the centuries.
The Japanese gardens take advantage of nature in such a special way that our eyes show an unmistakable style: what is a mistake, because the styles are different and the Orientals immediately perceive the difference.
Of these styles there are three main ones: the real landscape garden, the most classic, which is called “shin” and achieves the greatest decorative effect, is what we might call “representation”; the “gyo” style, more personal and intimate, and the “so” style, the simplest, often made up of few elements. These three styles are often found simultaneously in private gardens, distributed according to their disposition in relation to the house of which they form the ideal completion, and their subdivision, very ancient (dates back to ‘600), still lasts today with few variations. The gardens that surround the houses must then be distinguished from the monastic gardens or «contemplation», called karesansui or dry landscape. They are of even more ancient origin, going back to the Zen Buddhist doctrine, around the beginning of the fifteenth century, and they normally extend in front of the veranda where the monks sat in contemplation.
Their characteristic, from which the name derives, is the absence of any form of water, imitated by stone, rocks, and sand; any form of vegetation is absent, except moss; these gardens are usually constructed so as to completely absorb the thought in a symbolic sense, without external distractions. The most famous is the garden of Ryoanin, near Kyoto, formed by only raked sand with a design and isolated mossy stones, and framed by trees that fend it and preclude it from external glances. In the garden of Daisen-in, also near Kyoto, we have another remarkable example of dry landscape: here stones and sand simulate a watercourse with such ability to make it seem really existent (there is even a stone bridge that crosses it); it even seems to form some waterfalls. However, it should be borne in mind that the term “sand” means actually speaking of a special type of thin quartz stone, coming from the surrounding mountains, which has a fascinating brightness and lends itself very well to such optical deceptions. It is clear that not all the gardens of the temples are of this type, given the variety of seven existing in Japan, but many, from a later period or related to palaces or parks, they are clearly aquatic and even those that are in part use the water in the widest and most natural way possible; However, they always follow very precise symbolic rules, such as the one that every watercourse must cross the garden from left to right with respect to perspective
front. Stones and wood are widely used, as well as rocks, and corroded by time; the trees are often thin but very thin, the leaves are used copiously and almost always they are cut and shaped the ground.
The same azaleas are treated in this way. Actually, the only flowers that stand out from the eyes are in the appropriate period, those of the cherry trees: they are so important that they are organized specifically to see the cherry blossoms in particular places where there is a considerable quantity; there are also aquatic filters, such as water lilies, and often irises, on the edges of ponds and ponds. Occasionally other flowers meet, especially peonies and lilies; Flowers are as a essential ornament.
In compensation, other decorative elements, such as pavilions, urns, and sometimes in the most important gardens, ancient sculptures, all of the clear Chinese derivation, are often superfluous. The various types of bamboo are widely used, not only as plants, but also to form, with their reeds, Palisades, supports for verandas or climbing plants or other, and in practice.
the Japanese gardens wish to be idealized as a result of philosophical and ethical schemes that escape, just as they do in their paintings; this also explains why, in spite of their fascination with the evolution of the western garden and the short vogue of the “ucineserie”, especially in England, they have never really been elaborated in Europe: because, in de fi nitive, they are too unrelated to our spirit. For example, in reference to the famous imperial villa of Katsura, which has many pavilions, bridges, artificial hills and a pond with three small islands, leaf has its own particular meaning that we are not able to understand because our rational way of thinking only incorporates the synthesis of the decorative concept as a whole.
In the same way we can not understand the subtle game of rules that determine the construction of the paths that lead to the pavilion used for the tea ceremony in the garden: here too every stone and every ornament has its symbolic meaning that escapes us completely, as indeed it happens for the same ceremony of the preparation of the tea that in our eyes appears more like a theatrical representation than as something real and practical. It is therefore very sensible for Europeans to refrain from reproducing Japanese gardens that would only be copied with bad taste, just like everything that has not been assimilated in spirit.